Sunday, April 16, 2023

Review of Katie Lumsden's The Secrets of Hartwood Hall, an innovative Victorian gothic novel

Please pardon the blog silence from the last week and more. Things have been extremely chaotic at my workplace (the EIU faculty union went on strike for six days), and reading was close to impossible under the circumstances. A tentative agreement has since been reached, and classes began again last Friday, so everyone’s taking this weekend to relax, though the situation is not yet fully resolved.

I picked up and abandoned several books over this time and finished another, but with a lesser focus than usual. Eventually I turned to a new book in a subgenre –  gothic mystery – which I’ve found to be a reliable distraction from real life, and it got the job done.

You’ll know the pattern: in Victorian England, a young woman without prospects travels to a large, remote mansion to become governess for a family with a mysterious history. Servants and local villagers whisper about ghostly sightings late at night. Our heroine falls for a handsome man, but can he be trusted?

All this holds true. But the heroine of Katie Lumsden’s debut, The Secrets of Hartwood Hall, set in 1850s Somerset, isn’t a wide-eyed innocent but a 29-year-old widow, and this isn’t her first posting. Margaret Lennox had worked as a governess before wedding a clergyman who died three years into their marriage. Their union was unhappy. Margaret admits in an aside, “… but it was not as though I had ever been a good wife” – one among several hints of scandal in her past. She’s also deaf in one ear, which has made her search for a new job a challenge.

Margaret’s employer is also atypical: Mrs. Eversham, herself a widow, travels to London often on business. Margaret is directed to never let her pupil, 10-year-old Louis Eversham, out of her sight, and her mistress panics after learning Margaret took Louis, a curious and lonely child, to church in the village. Why?

To write in this subgenre, authors must know the tropes: when to incorporate them, how to invert them, and Lumsden does both very well. The novel presents an enticing mix of familiarity and the unexpected, all encased in a well-rendered Victorian milieu. As a governess, Margaret occupies an uneasy social space between servant and family member and searches for an understanding ear. She finds that – and more – in the arms of gardener Paul Carter, who adores Hartwood Hall and reassures her that there’s nothing to be frightened of. She wonders how he can possibly know that. The abandoned east wing sure sounds creepy, though, and Margaret gets a sense she’s being watched.

With so many secrets pervading all the characters’ lives, there are revelations aplenty, all brought forth at the appropriate time. My only complaint deals with one aspect of the ending, although I did understand why the author chose that route.

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall was published in the US by Dutton in late February.  Michael Joseph is the publisher in the UK.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my access on NetGalley.

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